How Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel started the Civil War and shifted American culture

By Leonardo Reyes

Many historians will say that the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 indefinitely resulted in the Civil War.  However, some may argue that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” resulted in the Southern states secession from the Union.  It is even said that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he allegedly even said, “So this is the little lady that made this big war”.  How did could the publishing of a book result in America’s deadliest war?  Stowe’s writing was able to both increase abolitionism in the north and inflame the southerners with her vivid depictions of slavery.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe is able to describe the suffering and anguish that Slaves faced prior to the Civil War, and she uses her kind and gentle protagonist, Uncle Tom, to successfully display the agony that the slaves had to persevere through and that the Northerners were ignorant to.  Towards the latter end of the novel, Tom is bought by a cruel and ruthless plantation owner named Simon Legree who viciously beats his slaves and works them to death.  Tom is constantly beat by Legree, but Tom maintains his strength and will in the face of pure evil, which is shown in chapter 33 when Tom is confronted by Legree, Stowe writes,

“In the very depth of physical suffering, bowed by brutal oppression, this question shot a gleam of joy and triumph through Tom’s soul. He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed,

“No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven’t bought it, – ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it; – no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!” (Stowe 374).

Tom’s iron will makes him a character that the northerners can root for and can have them desire to have his story conclude in happiness.  However, Stowe is aware that all slaves did not end their lives in happiness and she uses Tom to display how harsh and unforgiving the live of a slave was.  Tom is ordered to be savagely beat to death by Legree, seeing Uncle Tom murdered in cold blood primarily could be the reason why the Northerners choose to partake in abolitionism and looked to free the slaves.  So Tom is essentially a fictional martyr who died in order to awake the Northerners to the realities of the slaves’ lives entrapped by slavery.  

Stowe also utilizes another character, Eliza Harris, in order to display how traumatic and devastating it is to be separated from your family.  Eliza Harris a young enslaved woman who is married with a young son named Harry.  She lives a somewhat privileged life for a slave, however when he master sells her son, she has no choice but escape with her son.  This leads to one of the most famous moments of the novel, where she has to go across a river in the winter on a block of ice in order to escape recapture, Stowe writes,

With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;–stumbling–leaping–slipping–springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone–her stocking cut form her feet–while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank” (Stowe 61)

Eliza Harris’ character having her feet cut to shreds by ice in order to escape with her son is efficiently used by Stowe in order to have Northern mother’s sympathize with Eliza Harris and have consider the emotional pains they would face if they were to lose their child.  

uncle-toms-cabin-5

This painting portrays the famous scene in the novel where Eliza Harris is forced to escape slavery in order to avoid recapture and having to give away her young son, Harry.  This certain scene gains its notoriety from the perseverance and determination that a mother has in order to defend her innocent child from the pain and suffering that will slavery inevitably bring to him.  Literary critics criticize Eliza Harris for being a character that lacks depth, and is solely used to have Northern readers sympathize with the fictional character.  Nevertheless, having the Northerners sympathize with her characters, Stowe is able to bring the horrors of slavery to the Northerners and convince them to bring an end to slavery.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work is distinctly an American classic as it is deeply ingrained in America’s history just as slavery is.  But it’s legacy is not solely defined by it’s content.  It also has characters that northern readers in the past sympathized with, and even readers today can still sympathize with them.  As well as a harsh but reality driven style of writing that did not shy away from exposing the pain and suffering that slaves were forced to face in their lives.  

Bibliography

Reynolds, David. “Reynolds: Did a book start the Civil War?” NY Daily News, 11 Apr. 2011, www.nydailynews.com/opinion/book-start-civil-war-uncle-tom-cabin-testament-power-culture-article-1.112605.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 1811-1896. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London :J. Cassell, 1852. Print.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ushistoryimages.com/uncle-toms-cabin.shtm.

Wellington, Darryl Lorenzo. “Uncle Tom’s Shadow.” The Nation, 29 June 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/uncle-toms-shadow/.

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